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Lofty expectations: Ascending Washington State volleyball program no longer the underdog

UPDATED: Fri., Aug. 27, 2021

Washington State outside hitter Penny Tusa gets low to dig for a ball during practice.  (COURTESY OF WSU ATHLETICS)
Washington State outside hitter Penny Tusa gets low to dig for a ball during practice. (COURTESY OF WSU ATHLETICS)

Washington State has never been ranked higher in the Pac-12 preseason volleyball poll (fifth) or the AVCA preseason rankings (No. 18). The Cougars have three preseason All-Pac-12 selections, another program first.

The underdog label WSU has worn for years doesn’t seem to fit as snugly after five consecutive NCAA tournaments and regular appearances in the national rankings.

“I hate that,” coach Jen Greeny said dryly, when the preseason milestones were mentioned. “I like to be the underdog.”

Those days are fading in the rear-view mirror after the Cougars stitched together a fourth-place finish with an 11-4 conference record last spring – second best by winning percentage in school history – while navigating a COVID-19-impacted season.

The lofty expectations are a tribute to the program Greeny has built in her first nine seasons. The former Cougar standout took over in 2011 after the 2010 team finished 0-18 in conference. She’s guided WSU to four top-five finishes in the last five seasons in the rugged Pac-12 while posting three seasons with at least 22 wins.

The Cougars appear poised for another strong season with the return of projected All-Pac-12 performers Magda Jehlarova (junior middle blocker), Pia Timmer (junior outside hitter) and Hannah Pukis (junior setter).

Pukis was honorable mention AVCA All-American last season. Jehlarova is a two-time first-team All-Pac-12 selection and the 2019 AVCA national freshman of the year. Timmer paced WSU with 173 kills.

Jehlarova is joining the team for Friday’s season-opening match against South Carolina at the Carolina Tournament after playing for the Czech Republic national team at the European Championships in Bulgaria.

Versatile Penny Tusa is back for her fifth season with the NCAA is allowing fall-sports athletes an additional year of eligibility in response to COVID-19 interruptions last season. Katy Ryan, a 6-foot-5 freshman from Lakeland High in Rathdrum, Idaho, is competing for playing time.

“Our goal is always to get back to the NCAA Tournament and from there, to host,” Greeny said. “It’s a great group coming back. We’re just trying to do better than the last time we played.”

Here’s a preview of area programs.

Idaho

The Vandals, 5-9 in conference last spring, return 6-3 senior middle Nikki Ball, a two-time All-Big Sky second-team selection who led the team in blocks (66), and senior Allison Munday (Post Falls High), who had 151 kills.

“Nikki will definitely be one of our go-to players,” coach Debbie Buchanan said. “I expect Allison to be another go-to player. I think we’re going to see good things from (libero) Alaina Lacey. Because of our youth, we’re going to keep improving throughout the season.”

The Vandals, picked to finish in a tie for seventh in the Big Sky preseason poll, open at home against Portland on Friday and Grand Canyon on Saturday.

Eastern Washington

The Eagles, picked ninth in the Big Sky preseason poll, face Grand Canyon on Friday and Portland on Saturday in Moscow.

EWU finished 5-11 in conference last season, advancing to the Big Sky Tournament for the first time since 2016. Key returners include middle blocker Ashlyn Blotzer, who earned second-team All-Big Sky honors last season, setter Lindsey Russell (Mead High, Community Colleges of Spokane) and outside hitter Maya McClellan.

“I think we’re an aggressive serving team,” fourth-year coach Leslie Flores-Cloud said. “We struggled with that last year. Our serve-receive had gotten a ton better and our block is much improved so I’m hoping that helps us out defensively.”

Gonzaga

The Bulldogs, who went 7-11 last spring to finish seventh in the WCC, are picked seventh in the preseason poll.

Alyssa Hughes, who led the conference in blocks (72) and hit at a .348 clip, made the preseason All-WCC first-team. Kennedy Croft produced 128 kills despite missing extended time with an injury.

San Francisco transfer McKenna Marshall, who was first-team All-WCC while ranking second in the conference with 281 kills in spring, brings additional firepower.

“We don’t go in with a ton of expectations except establishing who we are, no matter who’s on the other side of the net,” coach Diane Nelson said of opening against Southeastern Louisiana on Friday and Mississippi State on Saturday in Starkville, Mississippi.

Whitworth

The Pirates are positioned to make a run at another Northwest Conference title with a returning core led by setters Saylor Anderson and Joelle Forbes, conference kills leader Maddie Lee (Mead High), right-side hitter Abby Woolverton and middle Kaity Barr.

“I’m pretty hopeful we can compete at a high level in conference,” said coach Kati Bodecker, who guided Whitworth to a 10-2 spring record. “Past that, we haven’t won a game in the (national) tournament since I’ve been here. That’s definitely a goal for us.”

Community Colleges of Spokane

The Sasquatch figure to be an NWAC title contender with middle blocker Kylie Turner (University High), outside hitter/middle blocker Kendra Pope (Valley Christian High) and freshman outside Madeline Gebers.

“I feel pretty confident,” said coach Taylor Stewart, who led CCS to a 12-4 record in the East Division in her first season. “They have a lot of fun, but they also hold each other accountable.”

North Idaho College

The Cardinals have a smaller roster with just 10 players, but they plan on making noise in the NWAC East.

“It’s kind of challenging practice wise, but it’s a really fun group,” coach Kelsey Stanley said. “They are definitely feisty.”

The Cardinals are led by setter/hitter Taylin Rowley (Lake City High), a transfer from Southern Oregon, libero Clair Hodge, middle Lili Hare (Coeur d’Alene High) and outside Janae Rayborn (Lake City).

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